5 Ways Plotting & Character Development Is Like Playing Chess

5 Ways Plotting & Character Development Is Like Playing Chess

In this post we look at five ways plotting and character is a lot like playing chess.

There is a rather humorous meme that says, ‘Life is like chess…I don’t know how to play chess.’ Interestingly enough, this post is very similar. Plotting and character development is also like chess. Luckily for you, dear reader, I do know how to play chess. (Although my regular chess opponent may disagree.)

There are six pieces in chess. The King, Queen, Bishop, Knight, Rook, and Pawns.

5 Basic Rules About Chess

  1. There are no arbitrary pieces. Used correctly, pawns can deliver devastating results.
  2. Each piece must move in their own specific way.
  3. An ‘arbitrary’ move earlier on in the game can provide the death blow at the end.
  4. If you can plan a few moves ahead, you may be able to force your opponent to move and destroy his or her own carefully constructed plan.
  5. Sometimes, in order to win, you have to sacrifice your most powerful pieces.

So, why is this relevant to plotting or character development?

5 Ways Plotting & Character Development Is Like Playing Chess

  1. No Arbitrary Characters

When creating characters in your book, each one must be distinctive in looks, vocabulary, speech patterns, size, shape, and role. In chess, pawns are often seen as ‘arbitrary’, much like walk-on characters in books. But a pawn can often be the most important piece on the board. In your novel, a seemingly arbitrary character can be the one who ends up being the murderer, the person who provides the final clue to solving the murder, the one who delivers the letter that starts the entire story, or who tells the hero something that sets him off on his adventure.

Tip: Don’t Dismiss Small Characters. Spend time making them ‘real’. You don’t have to go overboard, but a ‘keen, young, freckle-faced, policeman’, will draw  your reader deeper into your story than a faceless one would.

  1. Each Character Must Be True To Themselves

In chess, a Bishop can only move diagonally. They can’t move in an ‘L’ shape like Knights can. Conversely, a Knight can’t move in a straight line or diagonally. Mention Darcy, Bingley, Wickham, and Mr Bennet, and anyone who has read Pride and Prejudice will have exact images of these men in mind! There can be no confusion at all.

Tip: Create Unique Characters. It’s a great idea to create a character bible, at some point during the writing of your book, to avoid characters speaking, walking, or acting the same as each other. This helps your reader keep the characters straight in their imagination as they read, and keeps your book interesting and rich.

  1. Create Opportunities For Characters To Blind-side Others And The Reader

My regular chess opponent often says, ‘I did not see that coming!’ In my head, I have a cunning plan that requires me to move pieces into a seemingly arbitrary place when, in fact, I’m setting up the ‘big’ move. You can do the same when writing your book. Agatha Christie is fabulous at doing this. Death On The Nile is an excellent example. A character’s arbitrary move can be the action that frees them up to do something nefarious, or forces them into a place, situation, or even conversation, on which the entire plot hangs, revolves or propels it towards the conclusion which you are constructing. This arbitrary move could allow them to later blind-side another character which ‘no-one’, except you, saw coming.

Tip: Plot Ahead. Plotting will prevent your book from being predictable, and dull. Keep the reader on their toes by blind-siding both your characters and your readers.

  1. Force Characters To Move When They Really Don’t Want To

The trouble with cunning plans in chess is that if your opponent doesn’t ‘stick to the script’ and move where you’re hoping they she will. You may then find yourself being forced to move a once strategically placed piece. As a result, your entire plan can fall apart. It’s what makes chess exciting, frustrating and addictive.

Tip: Throw A Cat Among The Pigeons
Throughout the book, you hero or heroine will have been battling the odds to achieve a certain goal. So, just as everything seems to be finally falling into place for them, that’s when you push them into the ‘dark night of the soul’.

  1. Sacrifice Your Pieces

‘There is no such thing as a senseless killing. It makes sense to the killer’. This is true for both chess players and writers. Not to mention psychopaths. In chess, to draw out your opponent’s big pieces, or to make space for one of your ‘arbitrary’ pieces to deliver the coup de grace, you are sometimes required to sacrifice a seemingly important piece. This could even be your own Queen – often seen as the second-most important piece on the board. It can be a shocking and unexpected move, lulling your opponent into a false sense of security.

Tip: Kill Your Darlings

Don’t keep characters around just because you like them. If it would best serve the plot of your book, or the development of other characters or the plot, then take a metaphorical axe to your favourite character and get your story moving.

Last Word

I hope this post will help you if you are writing a novel. Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

Elaine Dodge

by Elaine Dodge. Elaine is the author of The Harcourts of Canada series. Elaine trained as a graphic designer, then worked in design, advertising, and broadcast television. She now creates content, mostly in written form, for clients across the globe, but would much rather be drafting her books and short stories.

More Posts From Elaine

  1. 5 Tools To Use When Writing A Historical Novel
  2. The Thing About Life And 5 Things To Consider When Killing Off A Character
  3. 4 Writing Challenges To Keep Your Writer’s Brain Alive That You May Not Have Thought Of Before
  4. Book Banning And Why It Matters
  5. How To Market Your Book After You’ve Written It
  6. How To Market Your Book Before You Start Writing It
  7. How Important Is Backstory In A Romance Novel?
  8. Setting & Description In A Romance Novel
  9. How To Pace A Romance Novel
  10. 9 Must-Have Ingredients In A Romance Novel

Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

Posted on: 16th November 2022
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